This week Iran sat down with representatives from the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany—as part of the P5+1 meeting—to discuss plans to scale back its nuclear program. It is hoped that the talks result not only in a plan acceptable to all parties but a new openness in communication between Iran and the world. So far the signs have been positive. R. K. Ramazani, one of the world’s leading scholars on modern Iran and author of Independence without Freedom: Iran’s Foreign Policy, already contributed some thoughts on new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and now he looks more closely at Iran’s relations with the United States…
In all of my study of Iran over the past sixty years, whether before or after the Revolution of 1979, I have pleaded for a better understanding of the country and its people. The title of my latest work—Independence without Freedom: Iran’s Foreign Policy—reveals my sense, however, that what’s important now is the Iranians’ struggle for freedom.
I believe that the problem of American-Iranian relations derives mostly from American inattention to history. About half a century ago, I called attention to the fact that in Iranian culture the “past is ever present,” as well as urged that that reality was, and still is, vital to a better understanding of Iran’s foreign-policy behavior. In contrast, in our American culture the past is never present. For example, we tend to dismiss a viewpoint opposed to our own by saying, “That is history!”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright well encapsulated the importance of understanding the history and culture of other nations. In an address in 2000 to U.S. diplomats and other officials, she said “cultural factors are utterly inseparable from foreign policy,” and that “the more we know and understand about cultures of those with whom we interact, the more successful our policy will be.”
I would argue that Iranian foreign policy is currently being driven by identity, independence, power, authoritarianism, factionalism, environment and democracy. At the same time, Iran’s foreign policy makers use a variety of tools, including subversion, soft power, hard power, and procrastination.
In approaching the nuclear issues, we must look at the context of Iran’s diplomatic culture, which reveals that ever since the Iranian Revolution, the opposition of the West in general and the United States in particular to Iran’s nuclear development has created in the psyche of the Iranian people the need to defend their nation’s “inalienable right” (haq-e Musallam) to enrich nuclear power for such uses as electricity. This need has deep roots in the ancient Iranian loyalty to national identity, the goal of political independence, and the quest for regional primacy, not dominance.
I believe that for the P5+one—the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, and Germany—the goal of halting Iran’s nuclear enrichment is unrealistic. Iran will be prepared to accept limits on its enrichment level, perhaps even to the extent of forgoing breakout capacity. It will ultimately depend, of course, on what Iran will get in return.
The essays contained in my new book were written long before the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration and during the highest tension between the United States and Iran. But just when the skies looked dark, something new and unexpected happened. Hassan Rouhani’s surprise landslide victory in Iran astounded Iranians, Americans, and much of the world. He promised to seek the “road to moderation,” as well as better relations with the United States and to pursue “freedom” for the Iranian people. Where the road to moderation will take the United States and Iran is difficult to foresee, but the Iranian people’s quest for freedom is sure to persist.
R. K. Ramazani is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. His Independence without Freedom: Iran’s foreign Policy will be available in November.